Compared to...

Studio scene comparison (higher sensitivities)

Graphs don't tell the whole story, and here we're taking a look at how well the D3S compares in terms of image quality at its high ISO settings against the competition. There isn't much competition at this level, it must be said, and only the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV matches the D3S for high ISO settings, up to a frankly astonishing ISO 102,400. The D3 is included here for the purposes of showing the improvements that Nikon has made to the D3S compared to its well-respected predecessor. All images here are JPEG files, taken at standard settings with default noise reduction enabled. It should go without saying that careful post-processing of the equivalent raw files will yield more attractive results.

Note: The highest ISO settings of the Nikon D3S and Canon EOS 1D Mark IV are impossible to capture in our normal studio setup, since the required shutter speeds for correct exposure exceed the 1/8000sec maximum of both cameras. To solve this problem (and to avoid stopping the lenses down) we fitted a 2 stop ND gel to our studio light.

We shot the 'normal' ISO span of these cameras with no gel fitted, as per normal practice, and fitted the gel for those images shot at the extension ISO settings. A fresh custom white balance reading was taken for the gelled images, and the scene was realigned as closely as possible. This has the advantage of keeping the entire ISO span 'within range' and more closely replicates the sort of low-light environment in which the ultra-high ISO sensitivity settings are likely to be used.

ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 12,800
ISO 25,600
ISO 51,200
ISO 102,400
Nikon D3S
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV
Nikon D3
Nikon D300S

We can see that the D3S delivers cleaner, less gritty images at all high ISO settings than the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV. From direct observation of the images it also offers at least a one stop advantage in image quality over the D3 at all ISO settings above ISO 6400. However, at ISO 3200 and 6400 the difference between the output of the three larger-format cameras is relatively trivial. Only at ISO 12,800 and above does the benefit of the larger photodiodes on the D3S's sensor really become clear.

Although the D3 and D3S have a lower pixel count than the EOS-1D Mark IV, the Canon isn't able to resolve significantly more detail beyond ISO 6400. At ISO 25,600 the D3 is the weakest of the three cameras (although not by much, and high contrast detail is still quite well resolved). The D3S is noticeably better than the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV at this setting, and images show less noise and greater detail.

The gap gets even wider at ISO 51,200, where the Canon's files are very mushy in comparison with the D3S, and it is clear that ISO 102,400 is simply a step too far for the 1D Mark IV's sensor. At this setting the 1D Mark IV cannot deliver any meaningful information at a pixel level. The D3S, on the other hand, is still going (relatively) strong, still capable of recording colors more or less accurately, and still resolving medium and high contrast detail.